Dragons, Fairies and Jungles

 

“I believe in everything until it’s disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it’s in your mind. Who’s to say that dreams and nightmares aren’t as real as the here and now?”

– John Lennon

 

The Bare Chested Tencher
I apologise for this blatant display of machismo. And for taking my shirt off, too.

 

Read on if you’d like to encounter dragons, fairies (and even fish) in their most favourite environment: an English jungle. Well, not so much the dragons. More like dragonflies. Actually, damsels, really. And damselflies at that. But when you’re staring at a float in the midday sun, the mind’s eye can do funny things. The damselflies’ favourite part of the estate lake at Bury Hill is the so-called ‘Jungle’; a vast collection of interwoven trees and bushes that line the distant back end of the pool like a giant horseshoe. Here there is no division between land and water; rather, the tree roots and brambles spill freely into the lake to create a boggy, leafy angler’s paradise; an electric atmosphere in which to fish.

 

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Welcome to the Jungle.

 

Jungles fascinated the upper classes of the era; like all the English, they loved the idea of not quite knowing what lurked beyond the end of the garden. Quite charmingly, the word itself is Hindi and translates as ‘wild or uncultivated land’. It made its way to Mother England from the Indian Raj some time in the 1800’s- and was in good company; other words we circuitously inherited from the subcontinent include ‘dinghy’, ‘pyjamas’, ‘thug’ (the name given to the travelling bandits formed during a regional rebellion), ‘nirvana’ and, most important of all, the life-giver: ‘Curry’…

So there you have it. A thug on a dinghy in a jungle. With a penchant for curry. The gods of fishing could surely not be blind to this rare alignment…

I’d arrived early for once, and soon I was drifting excitedly- but slightly uneasily- along the strange banks of this angling ‘nirvana’ (sorry- couldn’t resist that). Far from the shoreline and only accessible via punt, you cannot help but feel like Marlowe in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’: very slowly inching upstream toward some gory but compelling discovery. In actual fact, it is all a great trick. A fascinating Victorian-made folly. The ‘Jungle’ is wide but doesn’t extend further back than perhaps fifty yards in any given spot. However, you can’t see past the first waterlogged ten feet or so. And what your eyes can’t see- your brain instead begins to imagine…

This is the very quality that makes the jungle so bewitching a siren to anglers; it’s the perennial problem that you can’t quite ever solve. Still – like the boy who discovers a secret pond or an abandoned old tree house- you can’t help but keep looking and staring into it for hours, searching for signs of life. Bubbles, shadows, branches moving against the breeze etc… Periodically your trance is broken and suddenly you’re staring into nothingness. An abyss of natural neglect. At these times, you feel all washed up and abandoned in a faraway place. But gradually you relax- and little by little your gaze is drawn back in.

 

Plumbing the depths
Master tench float and ‘plumb-bob’…

 

I attached my new float that I’d bought for the trip, and cast off. I’d plumbed the depth; it averaged about four and a half feet but I’d found a deep, dark hole amongst the branches that went down to about six feet. The space had been created by the competing roots of two old oak trees and it tunneled right down into the jungle itself. Perfect, really. And very, very intriguing. Such a dark and mysterious hole is the perfect summer hiding place for a big tench. Conversely, when the weather cools and the tench leave for the great deeps in the middle of the lake, the perch will move into a spot like this and take up winter residence. Perhaps I’ll remember and return. These close-up, ‘ambush’ tactics (for lack of a more romantic term) are the quintessence of summer angling for me and most of my tench fishing involves this kind of approach; creeping up on them, basically. You plan, you prepare and you follow the basic tenets of angling, but beyond that it’s a contest between you and Mother Nature.

 

Tea
Punt Life… I’d bought along a lovely Mitchell 301 (I’m a right-handed reeler) to use with a second rod aimed at the carp, but in the end I never used it. I find using more than one rod is almost impossible.

 

So, in full stealth mode, I cast my float into the hole. I then fixed a brew and began to recline. It wasn’t long before waiting became anticipation- which only an angler can understand. Here and there, I also thought about my approach. Not quite doubts. Not yet; but even when perfectly confident, your mind will question your tactics at some point. The bait was two small worms; I swear this is a bait that a tench simply has to accept, even if it’s not particularly hungry. I was using an insanely beautiful float, styled on a vintage design. But this particular piece also possesses state of the art balance and build quality. Like the Knight in UA Fanthorpe’s poem ‘Not My Best Side’, it practically screams at the fish: ‘Don’t you want to be captured in the most contemporary way?!’

The maker, Andrew Field, fashioned it from a delicate quill that is usually employed for crucian carp fishing; he beefed it up slightly and then added the classic body and buoy-like tip of a real tench float so it could beat any ‘drift’ on the lake. Perfect for this type of depth on a big water. Big enough to stay put, but light enough not to scare off the tench when they (inevitably) take the bait. I also thought of the float as a good luck charm; there are, in fact, ancient crucian carp in this lake- some of which weigh well over four pounds. They’re not abundant enough to ‘target’, so to speak, but they are occasionally caught by tench anglers. With a tench float made from a crucian quill, I was surely going to be in the lake’s good graces…

And as I stared at its bright red tip, the rest of the picture began to fragment. What had seemed like the integral parts of a ‘whole’ landscape, slowly broke away and became distinct. Firstly I became aware of the different types of birdsong. There were goldfinches chirruping some thirty yards to the southeast of the punt; whilst beyond the float I could hear a song thrush- always later than the blackbird- finishing his morning ballad. Further into the undergrowth, I could just detect the muffled giggles of a greater spotted woodpecker. Then the smells began to grow stronger. Firstly the scent of the lilies yawning and then, as the mercury rose, I felt overwhelmed by a great shower of dandelion seeds. I was becoming badly sunburnt, but seemed powerless to move- so deep was my state of hypnosis. The float, and everything near it, seemed enormous. Trees developed distinct features that hitherto I hadn’t perceived… When it started to occur to me that the damselflies resembled small dragons, I knew that my sojourn from reality was complete.

The Jungle now held me completely in her thrall.

 

Tench float awaiting contact...
Dragon at rest on my float… Add fairies and tench for perfection…

 

After a while, some fairies came and joined us: a company of twenty or so long tailed tits (although I prefer the name ‘old red eyes’) nestled in the woods near my boat and started to gambol charmingly about between the branches of the jungle. Like candy floss on stems; their tails are actually bigger than their entire bodies. I find them very inquisitive and unafraid of humans. Fairies really, these ‘little people’ set the dragon-damsels off beautifully. The whole atmosphere of the place was intoxicating. The magical creatures, the angle of the float, the lilt of the punt… Until eventually the trance deepened into drowsiness…

 

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Fairies at the back of the garden…

 

… And then sleep!… As I realised my error, my flickering eyes could just about discern the tip of my float sliding down into the depths. Smells, sounds, fairies and dragons all retreated as I pulled myself out of dreamland and struck hard. Hard enough to pull slack line up, but not hard enough to connect. I cursed myself as I reeled up the slack, but then nearly jumped out of the punt when the line went solid- very solid.

The fish was hooked and it felt decent. I got it into open water and attempted to play it away from the jungle. No good. It made a series of spirited, no, terrifying charges back into the woods and would have beaten me outright if it weren’t for the strong line that I was using; much sturdier than I would normally use for tench. A necessary insurance against the malice of the jungle. The line held, but my rod perhaps wasn’t fully up to the job. It bent to the point of snapping but ultimately did hold. Just. It made for an exciting battle, but a bigger fish may have made mincemeat of me. When the fish finally surfaced, I could see it was a nice tench. Almost five pounds; an excellent size for a float fisher… But my experience with the rod had left me shaken.

 

Tench in the net
A near five pound ‘Jungle’ tench. Chunky and in perfect condition, he scared the fairies away. And nearly shattered my rod.

 

I stayed awake and alert(ish) for the rest of the day. A subpar rod is one thing, but a sleeping angler would be the ultimate gauntlet to lay down to these fish; I would soon find myself floating home if I drifted off again.

As the day progressed, I missed two further bites by striking too early. Then, an hour before rowing back, I hooked one more tench: a four pounder. Another amazing battle ensued, similar to the last. My only advantages were being more alert this time round- and shirtless, which probably frightened the hell out of the poor fish when it finally surfaced.

A clear blue sky had started to gather clouds by the time I packed the car up. Tonight I was staying somewhere else: the ancient (and haunted) ‘White Horse’ hotel in Dorking- just a couple of miles away. Tomorrow I would return and try the lake anew. But before doing so I intended to call into town and buy a new, stronger rod from the local tackle dealer. And prior to all that I had drinks to drink and curries to eat and, apparently, ghosts to see.

And all the while, the clouds kept growing. I thought about this as I drove away from the lake and back up into the woods- sorry to leave the fairies, but safe from the dragons…

For now.

 

View from the punt

Part Two- In Search of Albion Tinca

 

“Ours was the marsh country…”

 

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Approach to a Kentish marsh.

 

Kentish cotton ball clouds, blue skies and the endless verdant jade vistas of England in early summer. The walks out onto the onto the marshes were pleasant… I’d found an old trail I could use to get my car within two miles of three of my chosen locations. This in itself was a fulfilling task as this track exists neither in the map books nor on ‘Google Earth’. Though hardly illegal, there is a keen romance to be experienced in walking roads that theoretically don’t exist. I positively revelled at the prospect of my imminent double life. School teacher by day… ‘Tench Poacher of the Kentish Marshes’ by dusk.

 

But even that most lofty of titles could only apply if I caught one- and I wondered if there really would be any tench out there. Other than Mick’s accounts, I have honestly never seen or heard any other evidence of giant tench populating Kent’s wild marshes. Pike- yes; and even carp- but never tench. But they are survivors. The highlight of the previous season was when my Uncle and I foolishly went punt-fishing for tench on an old Estate Lake in Surrey. It was terrific fun. We went deep into the belly of the lake and I caught a corking tench of 5lbs 4oz- a decent fish on a float- complete with duelling scars across its dorsal fin; no doubt these were mementos from an infant tussle with a pike or one of the lake’s resident herons.

 

The experience reminded me that tench are a very hardy fish- well known both for their resistance to predators and also their tolerance of all kinds of harsh environments. If Mick was catching them in the marshes twenty-odd years ago, then there was a good chance that the remnants of a tribe would still be left out there. Or better still, it could be just as the old master had described it to me; a tench fisher’s paradise. I sometimes dared to think the latter- and more. But I quickly stilled my dreams… Because the first job of any tench fisherman is preparation.

 

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An Estate Lake Tench I caught from a punt during the previous season. Note the distinctive battle scar just below its dorsal fin. Photo by Ganz Toll.

 

It was time to delve into oldest Albion. The Kentish coastline is intermittently covered with marshland and dykes as far as the Thames. Mick lived in the same town as me so I picked the two biggest local marshes- roughly half an hour’s drive for me to each and about an hour away from each other. Counting both of them, I was looking at over a thousand acres of wetland riddled with all kinds of drains- many that looked capable of supporting fish. I hit the map books, took some long walks on both marshes and chatted with various farmworkers employed on the grazing sections. It didn’t take long to locate the larger drains with the denser habitats. Getting out to them was a different matter.

 

Tench are tough nuts; they fight in the truest sense of the word. A carp may go wild. But a tench gets angry. Strange then that in their daily existence they’re such a lazy fish- and a greedy one. The hobbits of the fish world, really. The way to locate their exact layabouts would be via their stomachs- so I needed to find their feeding areas. I did this by locating the deepest ‘bends’ present within the systems. These curves in the landscape are the fast food outlets of the tench world. The bends slow the water down and all kinds of edible morsels get caught up there. The fish regularly congregate around these areas to feast. Tench are also great fans of their creature comforts and will periodically shelter in the slacks and undercuts that these well worn grooves offer; particularly during the high winds to which the marshes are so prone.

 

Map and Reel.JPG

 

As the crow flies, my target spots weren’t that remote; this is Southern England after all… But they were all forgotten areas. Mini-wildernesses. Without exception, the last few hundred metres of every chosen location required me to crawl, climb and tiptoe through five feet high undergrowth. At times a knife came in handy (all fisherman need a good one- my current favourite is a Lappish hunting blade I bought from Finland); sensitively used, naturally; I’m an angler- not a survival enthusiast. I did however allow myself to wear a camouflage jacket that I’d been using for rabbiting in the previous season; it can take a real beating. Moreover I wanted to tip the odds in my favour on every front- especially given that the water out on the marshes is crystal clear. I was eventually proven correct in my assumption that the marsh tench are very, very wary of mankind; any extra available cover was to prove a real boon.

 

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My Lappish blade- infused with tradition and hugely helpful with most UK field sports.

 

The final (and most crucial) piece of lunacy would be my adherence to the time honoured tradition of using a ‘weed-rake’ to clear the swims (actually making them fishable- you can’t just cast directly into dense lily pads and thick cable weeds); I had mine welded especially for the campaign and it proved pivotal to success.

 

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My current weed-rake… At rest…

 

I hit gold very early on. On my first visit to one of the spots, I saw a carp. It was a great feeling just to know that there were fish there of any sort. On my second visit to the same area, I struggled about twenty yards further up the bend and started raking a huge jungle of weeds; the aim being to create a clear patch of about six square feet.

 

I’d been doing this for about half an hour or so when I took a break and poured a tea from my flask. The marshes are absolutely stunning so I sat and watched the bird life. During my time out there I witnessed barn owls hunting and was regularly dive-bombed by swallows. Once, I even saw a red kite, which are reasonably rare for the area. On this occasion I could hear (but naturally not see) cuckoos. It was late June. High season for cuckoos and tench, I thought to myself.

 

As I was still thinking about this I suddenly saw a tench of at least five pounds creep out from the weedbeds about 25 feet in front of me. I froze. The fish then started inspecting the open area I’d just raked. The water was clear now- I’d stopped raking several minutes earlier- and I could see all the way down to the bottom; right down into the deep water where the creature was now contentedly rooting around. Around ten feet in depth. He ambled around in the lazy but slightly bullish style that tench do- completely unaware of my presence. His huge paintbrush of a tail wafted into view several times as he upended like a duck and started sifting through the freshly disturbed weedbed for food… I felt a mixture of glee, satisfaction and trepidation all at once. The latter perhaps because I had no fishing rod with me. Would the fish still be here tomorrow? I reminded myself that tench are creatures of habit and that they never live by themselves… This lone scout had to be a member of a larger tribe.

 

After five minutes the fish moved very slowly back into his submerged jungle. I kept watching him until all I could see was darkness and even then I only looked up when I experienced the most vivid sensation that I was being watched from the surrounding thickets; this was not the last time that the marshes would give me this feeling.

 

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It was time to leave. But before doing so I baited the area copiously with mashed bread, hemp-seed, sweetcorn and luncheon meat. I watched for more fish but saw none… That didn’t matter. I would soon return with a rod. More importantly, I had witnessed a wild tench alive and well in an area I had selected from a map two weeks earlier whilst having a pint of Guinness; this in itself felt immensely fulfilling.

I now started to think unreasonable thoughts. I wondered what else must lurk beneath those lilies- and I imagined huge fish. One in particular. A giant… The Queen of the Marsh!

And in my dreams I spoke again with Old Mick.

I told him I had found his tench.

 

lillies-in-the-rain

 

 

Tench of the Kentish Marshlands- Part One

 

‘There was a Marsh’, quoth he…

 

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The Kentish Marshes at Twilight. This actual spot produced a near seven pound male- and I lost a much bigger fish not far from here.

 

Twenty years ago I worked as a labourer for several months before going off to University; my father felt it was necessary but I remain unconvinced. It was grotty work- most of it clearing effluent tanks on a local chemical plant- but my one salvation was ‘Old’ Mick, a painter who worked for the same firm as me. Profoundly deaf and one of the angriest, kindest souls I ever met- Mick was also hugely misunderstood… And misunderstanding.

Three days into my post, I watched him quarrel with a man who was thirty years his junior. It became physical and Mick knocked the man unconscious with a vicious straight right. The recipient- a labourer sent to work with Mick- was somewhat of a fast talker. Mick couldn’t read his lips properly and thought he was abusing him somehow.

Being by far the youngest on the firm (the foreman had kindly nicknamed me ‘Virgin’)- I was duly appointed the old man’s next assistant/victim. Hold the ladder, make the tea, avoid getting punched etc. Mick was 70 years old, about 5′ 9″ tall and immaculately fit with a thin, grey pencil moustache; he always wore his hard hat and- like quite a few of our older working generation back then- he’d seen war. He was 19 when he stormed the beaches of Normandy and was in Berlin nine months later… Me- I was an 18 year old punk who had just finished ‘A’ Levels; it was like Adrian Mole being partnered up with Clint Eastwood.

But it transpired that Mick was a superbly knowledgeable countryman, and when he found out that I fished (he saw me reading the ‘Angler’s Mail’ on our first morning working together), he started talking to me. Once he discovered I was a fellow tench fisherman, we got on like a house on fire.

 

gc-with-nice-tench
A tench I caught a couple of seasons ago from an old brick pit.

 

We bonded over our shared interests and became firm friends; he was a lovely man and I worked with him all summer without getting one paintbrush thrown at me- which was a record, apparently.

Over tea one morning Mick took on a more messianic look than usual and told me about some of the great sport that could be had fishing Kent’s coastal marshes- specifically in their vast drainage systems where the fish live and thrive in a rich clear water environment teeming with life. He painted an image which has never quite left me. ‘Full of the juices of the land’ he said. A boggy Hades of thick weed and primeval fogs which was transformed into an ethereal netherworld twice daily by stunning dawns and dusks; all the while ruled over by ‘saltwater tench’ as he called them, due to the semi-saline environment in which they resided. Giant, jade monsters with intense, staring red eyes that grew to well over ten pounds on a natural diet of snails and bloodworms. Ten pounds!!! And all within range of our favoured style- the float- Mick said.

 

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The Marshes at Dusk. Note the Wisp.

 

Tench fishing is a classic English field sport; it straddles the spring and summer and takes you to the old parts of Albion. England’s under-belly. Or rather its nether regions. Huge abandoned gravel workings- long reclaimed by nature; strange ponds; and the slow moving, brackish backwaters of the river system. Remote and sometimes- if you’re very lucky- deserted waterscapes. In many ways, it’s the fishing equivalent of wildfowling; a pure ambush sport that sees you hidden deep within remote undergrowth at first and last light. To be consistently good at it (which I’m not) requires preparation, commitment and a healthy dose of country-lore up your sleeves. You also need a good pair of wellies and the drive to walk miles into wetlands.

It’s an adventure and perhaps no other branch of angling feels more ‘Swallows and Amazons’ than tenching. Arthur Ransome was a true British countryheart who captured the feel of long English summers spent messing around by the water. This resonates all the more with me as I know that Ransome himself was also a highly enthusiastic tench hunter. The poet Ted Hughes also wrote lovingly of the discipline. After all, what could be more romantic than to sit alone at dawn in the beautiful but eerie English countryside waiting for- nay- willing your float to go under? Or perhaps whilst enjoying a pink dusk with a bottle of cider and the wisps for company? These are the great dual ceremonies of the tenching man- the feeding times, when the orange eyed ones come out from under the lillies and (hopefully) eat everything in sight…

This summer season I decided to catch up with Mick’s Marshes. They remain unaltered since Dickens’ time; in fact- they’re more desolate today because nobody lives there any more. To the best of my knowledge the last of the ‘marsh people’ moved out in the 1930’s. In that regard, these areas are similar to the Highlands of Scotland- where fewer people reside today than 150 years ago. The tench are now the undisputed masters and their empire spreads far and wide across the drains and the dykes; the deep running flood defences- some of which we built hundreds of years ago.

 

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The season for the marshes is a short one. They come under the old close season rules, which means that you cannot take a rod out on them until June 16th. But in general most tench populations stop feeding (at least enough to make fishing worthwhile) some time in early August. Therefore I decided to hit them on the first day of the season and keep going until the end of July; I would try to fish three or four times per week and cover the entire ‘magic’ six weeks of the traditional tench season; as it turned out, due to events beyond my control (and quite specifically for reasons known only to the marsh), I had to cut short my campaign after only three weeks.

But this was still pre-season and I didn’t know any of this yet. Or even if there were any fish out there. I gave myself a one in four chance of success (realistic expectations) and reasoned that even if I didn’t locate or catch some fish, then I would learn and see a lot.

The first two weeks of June went very slowly. I retired to the pub each evening, sharpened my hooks and made my plans.

 

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